By JAY LeBLANC
June 13, 2008
Chances are that nobody who saw Randy Tomlin pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early ‘90s is surprised to see him excelling in his new gig as pitching coach of the Washington Nationals‘ advanced Class A Carolina League affiliate, the Potomac Nationals. The 5’ 11”, 170 pound lefty didn’t have overpowering stuff but knew how to pitch to both sides of the plate and get batters out. During his five-year big league career, Tomlin went 30-31 with a 3.43 ERA and pitched in the National League Championship Series in both 1991 and 1992. He’s best remembered for his clutch performance in Game 4 of the 1991 NLCS in which he tossed six solid innings with the Pirates trailing the Atlanta Braves in 2-1 in the series, getting a no-decision but giving Pittsburgh a chance in a crucial game they ended up winning.
After retiring as a player, Tomlin got right back in the game as pitching coach at his alma mater, Liberty University, in 1997. He spent nine seasons with the Flames before accepting an opportunity to serve as Potomac’s pitching coach last year. Since joining the P-Nats, he’s worked with several of Washington’s best pitching prospects, including John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Adrian Alaniz, Cory VanAllen and Ross Detwiler, sharing insights from his playing days while helping them get the most out of their abilities. I recently had a chance to talk with Tomlin about his big league career and the work he’s doing now with the Nationals’ young hurlers:
Q: A lot of baseball fans probably remember you best for your performance in Game 4 of the 1991 NLCS. Could you share some of your memories from that game?
A: It was a great time. It was big for me in my career because we were down two games to one and it was a big, important game, and it was exciting to be able to go out and give the team a chance to win - we ended up winning and it was one to look back on sometimes and I’m just real thankful for it. It was a real pleasure and great to be able to pitch in the big leagues, and to be able to go to the playoffs and contribute, it means a lot.
Q: What was it like playing for Jim Leyland?
A: Jim Leyland is a great manager. He’s very smart and he does a great job managing the guys. I was young and I really kept to myself and didn’t talk to him a whole lot - talked to him some - but he was great. He’d walk around and make sure he talked to you every day and see how you were doing. He is a smart man and a great baseball man, and he has a big heart and cares about his players and that’s why guys play so hard for him - because they know he cares about them.
Q: You also played alongside Barry Bonds during the first three seasons of your career. What was he like as a teammate?
A: Barry was alright. He could have his moments, and at other times, it was just a case of letting him do his own thing. He felt like he had to be the kind of guy he was to get ready for his game, and just some things he did … you just went on, let Barry be Barry.
Q: Who were some of your favorite teammates?
A: All of them. But I was close to a lot of guys - Zane Smith, Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell, Jeff King and a guy named Roger Mason on that team, we were really close, all of us. Gary Redus was a good friend. Sid Bream, when he was there, was a close friend. It was pretty a pretty close-knit group.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the different pitches you threw and how you liked to use them?
A: I mainly tried to get ground balls. I threw a fastball that moved a lot and I had a big curveball and a sweeper - more of a slider - and a change-up. I mixed my pitches. I didn’t throw overly hard; when I tried to throw hard my ball straightened out, so I had to throw strikes and change speeds. That’s the name of the game - throwing the ball over the plate and changing speeds - that’s how you get guys out … if you’re not blessed with being able to throw 95. (Laughs)
Q: What hitter gave you the most trouble?
A: The one that jumps out is probably Barry Larkin, as far as statistics go. He just seemed to get a lot of hits off me. I also tell people that I contributed or helped Tony Gwynn get to the Hall of Fame too.
Q: You struck out 297 batters in 580 1/3 career innings as a big leaguer, meaning most of your outs didn’t come via the strikeout. Do you try to teach young pitchers the art of pitching to contact?
A: Yeah. That’s the whole key to today’s game anyway - low pitch count and pitch number, not being afraid of contact and using their stuff, being confident in your stuff and forcing the hitter to make contact. Strikeouts will happen; your stuff will take care of that. But if you’re not aggressive in throwing the ball over the plate than you’re going to give up more hits and give up more runs because you’re pitching off the plate instead of going right at the hitters.
Q: You’ve coached a lot of good young pitchers with Potomac. Let’s start with John Lannan. Why do you think he was able to breeze through the minors so quickly and have success right away in the bigs?
A: Because as I said, John believes in his stuff and believes in the plan that our pitching coordinator Spin Williams preaches - force contact, go at the hitter. John has great stuff and once he realized how great his stuff was that’s what he does. He goes right at the hitter with all his pitches and he started to learn what he had to do to be successful here as the type of pitcher that he was, and is. Once he realized that, it just clicked, and he’s gone.
Q: Jordan Zimmermann was also dominant during his short stint with Potomac. What are some of the things you tried to help him improve upon before his promotion to double-A Harrisburg?
A: Jordan’s got a great arm - mainly just trying to get a handle on some things in his delivery to help him throw more strikes and to be able to throw the ball over the plate and let his stuff take care of it, because if he throws the ball over the plate, his stuff is going to get him a lot of outs. He’s got a great arm.
Q: Cory VanAllen struggled at times last year but pitched great with Potomac and then with double-A Harrisburg so far this season. What kinds of adjustments did he make?
A: Well the main thing with Cory, coming up - he’s always had a great fastball and his change-up is good - was developing that curveball, that breaking pitch. Last year we began the process of doing that; there were a lot of people involved in doing it and contributing, and this year it got to where it was something consistent for him. He started to work off of that and it really caught on with him and he just was able to become a very good pitcher. It’s a good pitch right now. So that, added to his command of his pitches, has enabled him to be very successful. He’s another one who’s not afraid of contact; he’s going to come at the hitter and pitch to both sides of the plate really well.
Q: Speaking of that, Adrian Alaniz was arguably the best pitcher in the New York-Penn League last year and has been among the best this year in the Carolina League. What do you think makes him so effective?
A: Well, Adrian’s a pitcher. He doesn’t throw very hard but he commands his pitches. He throws anything he wants to in any count. The big thing for him his been the development of a change-up to combat left-handed hitters and to get guys off the fastball, and he changes speeds real well. He’s a pitcher - he’s not going to go out and try to wow you with his velocity of anything like that, but he’s going to make some pitches.
Q: Last year’s first-round pick, Ross Detwiler, has a ton of potential but has been inconsistent with his command this year. What are some of the things you’re working on with him?
A: Well, same as with the other guys, just trying to get him to learn his body and control his body and his delivery, and be in position when it comes time to throw a pitch. And then that will allow him to learn how to pitch. He’s doing a very good job at it; he’s coming along very well.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a minor league pitching coach?
A: Just being around the game and being able to have an influence in these guys lives as they play the game they love. It’s a great opportunity, and I love doing it.
Q: Do you hope to coach in the majors someday?
A: Someday - that would be great. I love teaching and I love the game and talking about the game, teaching pitching. So whatever level I can get to doing that, that’s what I want to do.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Amanda Rice